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Feb. 13, 2017, 6 a.m.

Newsonomics: The new Knight-Lenfest initiative gives a kick in the pants to America’s metro newspapers

“We have so valued the fact that we are still standing. ‘Look we’re still standing!’ But standing is not enough…you gotta run.”

For two decades now, daily newsrooms have been becoming digital. Now, finally into 2017, some of them are threatening to actually be digital, some twenty-two years after Nicholas Negroponte’s classic was published. Today’s announcement of the new Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative aims to push America’s metro newsrooms more strongly over that print/digital divide, by pushing the sharing of best practices and the moving the tools and workflows used by the national and global leaders down to local reporters and editors.

Importantly, the three-year, $4.8 million initiative is built on an existing foundation. Four major metros — Minneapolis’ Star Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News — proved out a model that now attracts this new investment. In October 2015, the four news companies teamed up with the Knight Foundation (with $1.3 million of funding) and Philadelphia’s Temple University to launch the “Table Stakes” project.

“The work is about journalism, about innovation, and ultimately about democracy,” says Jim Friedlich, the executive director and CEO of the newly renamed Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Four more metros are joining the project — The Seattle Times, San Jose’s Mercury News (Digital First Media), the Houston Chronicle (Hearst), and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Gannett), one independent daily and one each from major chains, and it’s that innovation word that’s key for all of them. Metro newspapers don’t have to invent the tools of the digital trade; they just have to apply them, decisively. Most of the tools — from core-to-the-business applied analytics to reader revenue propensity modeling to social audience maximization to mobile news products that meet reader expectations — are available and market tested. What this project aims to do: take what the best of what national/global news companies now use to drive their businesses and apply it — quickly — at the nation’s major metro newspapers.

The initiative aims to add four more newspaper partners in 2018 and four more in 2019. In all, this will be 16 mostly major American metro papers linking their chances for survival, and new prosperity, to this project.

“We want to do the maximum amount of good in the shortest period of time,” Friedlich told me this weekend.

It’s the nation’s once-proud sector of major metro newspapers that has been disproportionately wounded by a decade of digital disruption. For the most part, their publishers and editors have only been able to marvel at the newfound and longer-standing reader revenue successes of The New York Times. No individual metro paper has achieved more than five percent of the Times’ total of its 1.4 million digital-only subscribers. (That’s The Boston Globe, with about 70,000 digital-only subscribers.)

While the Times clearly works the advantage of scale — that national and now-global interest in its news product — it’s the Times’ wholesale reskilling that’s made those digital subscriber numbers possible. Dozens of audience developers, engineers, and visualization experts amplify the Times’ journalism and have turned it into a business in which 60 percent of revenue now comes from appreciative readers, not advertisers. Metros, on the other hand, generally see only 30 to 40 percent of their revenue from readers, and their rapidly declining print ad businesses have meant layoff after layoff, buyout after buyout.

You could consider this initiative the metro version of the The New York Times’ increasingly public playbook for innovation. And that means that yes, in 2017, newsroom culture — changing it to match the pace and thinking of national digital-only news companies — remains a top priority.

“Most of the greatest value of this project for us has been kicking us in the rear,” says Suki Dardarian, managing editor of the 250-strong Star Tribune newsroom. Speaking of the company’s top-of-sector successes, she says: “We have so valued the fact that we are still standing. ‘Look we’re still standing!’ But standing is not enough…you gotta run, and I think this program gave us the tools and the path and the inspiration to get going.

In the first year of the program, teams of about 10 staffers each from the Minneapolis, Dallas, Miami, and Philadelphia papers worked with a team of change strategists led by project director and management consultant Douglas K. Smith. As it grows, the initiative includes a number of stalwarts in the business of journalism change, including CUNY, Columbia, Penn, University of North Carolina, Temple, and the Poynter Institute. Poynter receives $800,000 in new funding “to guide and coach newsrooms across the country through digital and cultural transformation.”

“This project is rooted in collaboration,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “Bringing together major news organizations and experts in technology, journalism and other areas, it recognizes the importance of a concerted, strategic effort to address the challenges that local news organizations are facing in the digital age.”

“I think the first thing that it did was it gave us permission to begin addressing the gaps in our own organization,” says Dardarian, who along with others like Dallas’ Robyn Tomlin, is in the vanguard of change-oriented editors. “What are the gaps between what you need to do and where you are right now?”

“We felt we were too far behind in followers on Facebook, so we set about a strategy of increasing that. We beat our goals phenomenally well in that area,” Dardarian says. “Followers grew 67 percent in 2016, to 127,000. We doubled the number of impressions of our content seen on Facebook during the year, and we saw clicks on those posts go up 153 percent.” The monetization of that new readership falls to the digital team at the Star Tribune, led by senior vice president for digital Jim Bernard.

Dardarian can note a number of changes spurred by the initiative:

  • creating quick-strike teams for breaking news and breaking sports to get immediate news out, following the earlier example of The Washington Post’s Express team
  • increasing the social/news connection, through creating a team of newsroom “social leads”
  • getting more photos attached to digital stories
  • matching up sports staffing and sports posting with the actual digital audience readership patterns

“One of the most amazing charts that we put together was: when are we posting stories and when are people coming to our site,” she says. “We graphed those two against each other, and they are not at all synced up. And we showed that chart to an editor, and he went, ‘Oh, my word — we’re a sports department, we come in the afternoon, we work into the night. And we come in the next afternoon but the audience is there all day long, and they’re there first thing in the morning.”

This chart shows what that comparison looked like in January and again in April, after a number of initiatives had gone into effect to push up publishing times:

Dardarian, a 14-year veteran of the Seattle Times who came to Minnesota in 2014, points to one pivotal element of the process. “The more we saw success in the areas where we just started doing something, the more confidence we gained that we could actually turn things around. I think for so long in this industry, those of us in the newsroom have felt powerless to change anything. It was all about the decline in advertising, and we just had to stand by as witnesses. But in every newsroom I’ve been in, I think the journalists have always wanted to participate in helping the business succeed, and maybe they just didn’t know how, or we couldn’t connect folks from department to department. There is this well of desire in the newsroom to help the business succeed. Now we’re finally able to do things because the model is shifting towards the subscriber. That’s our sweet spot. So what can we do, using metrics, to understand our audience more and to engage them more?”

This is how the dots must be connected: Get more audience. Understand and segment them. Figure out which are most likely to pay for a subscription. Sell them, through increasingly nuanced and targeted marketing. While Table Stakes is a newsroom-centric project, participants repeatedly cite the value of newsroom leaders’ increasingly positive relationships with those on the business side.

If we judge the success of Table Stakes in a year or two, the primary number to look for is this one: How much did the participating newspapers move the needle on digital-only and all-access (print plus digital) subscribers? In an increasingly uncertain digital ad landscape, reader revenue will tell us whether these once highly impactful properties can be revived, whether their journalism can have the positive impact on the local and national democracy.

Tomlin and Morning News editor Mike Wilson have plowed through a lot of change in a short period. Much of it was driven off the 159-page strategic newsroom report that had just developed by Empirical Media — incidentally, the news consultancy that Jim Friedlich headed before taking Gerry Lenfest’s job offer in Philadelphia.

“I was walking in knowing we were going to completely reorganize our newsroom,” says Tomlin. “That we needed to redesign our digital products. That we needed to completely change the workflow and the tools and technologies that we were using in order to be a digital newsroom that also produces an incredible print product. Table Stakes added a lot of focus and analytical rigor to the process that we were using that we didn’t necessarily have walking into it. It also forced us to ground all of our efforts and assumptions in business realities. Which is always what you hope to happen, but rarely happens just because news and business and product and marketing are all sort of working together but often on very different things. So we pulled in teams that represented different areas of our organization, even though the focus was primarily on newsroom for our effort.”

Last month, the Morning News took another major step in its print-to-digital strategy by announcing the outsourcing of print pagination to a GateHouse facility, both eliminating 25 non-content-originating jobs and focusing more directly on the digital reader. Like the Star Tribune, the A.H. Belo-owned paper has maintained a strong newsroom of 240 or more, even as its done plenty of its own cutting.

As its name indicates, this is a Knight Lenfest partnership. Everyone in the business is familiar with Knight, as the foundation has led the field in trying to turn around daily news organizations’ demise. The Lenfest part is less known; Philadelphia business leader and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest made news a year by donating his ownership in the Philadelphia Media Network (a.k.a. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com) to a new “Institute for Journalism in New Media.” That generic mouthful and the seemingly tortured corporate structure around it drew fits of criticism, including mine.

Now that entity has been renamed the Lenfest Institute, which along with today’s announcement clarifies a lot. It clarifies that bringing the Philadelphia properties up to best-practice standards is best accomplished as part of a larger effort, and not by focusing “reinvention” money exclusively on Philly’s particular needs. That, again, is the innovation part of this: speeding the wheel of digital adaptation faster and faster.

Since assuming direction of the Philly project in the fall, Friedlich has brought to the table a good group of outside-the-newspaper industry veterans, including Chartbeat founder Tony Haile, Trove and Amazon veteran Vijay Ravindran, and Hong Qu, former CTO of Fusion. Speed is his mantra.

“That’s the Table Stakes methodology,” explains Friedlich. “Each quarter, you show me your best practices, I’ll show you mine. What’s working. What’s not working.” As Suki Dardarian puts it, “The four teams of people created exponential power. We share. Philly did a really good skills assessment of their staff. And so we said: ‘Hey, can we steal that?’ And they said: ‘Sure.’ So they’d drop it into a shared file; we took it up; we revised it and used that with our staff. We presented this at ASNE and some other newspapers came up to us and said ‘Can I have your skills assessment’? So we’re sharing that.”

First-stage participants met quarterly, and Robyn Tomlin’s description of it reminds us of a great old newspaper tradition — competition! — made new. “Each team had to present for like two hours, and nobody wanted to get up there and be like, ‘Well, we didn’t get anything done.’ Then we’d say, ‘This is where we have to get in the next two months.’ We had a really aggressive plan, and I’m proud to say we were able to accomplish 95 percent of the stuff in it.”

While the Knight Lenfest Initiative focuses on the metro press, a sibling second-phase project will launch in parallel, bringing the same notions of digital best-practice application and innovation to eight to 12 news organizations in a single state, North Carolina. That collaboration, with the Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, will apply a $3 million commitment from Knight Foundation and $1 million from the UNC Office of the Provost. Interesting, both radio and TV stations, and maybe digital startups, will participate along with daily newspapers.

In an era in which news deserts — and their impact on our struggling little 241-year-old experiment in self-rule — are finally getting some wider acknowledgement, such experiments offer some hope that a revival of the local news business is possible, and worth fighting for.

Of course, one big question lurks: Can this new initiative make a big difference in the fortunes of the local press?

We can be sanguine about what it’ll take for a real business transformation among the papers that continue to support robust newsrooms. It’s high-quality, differentiated, occasionally investigative, to-the-point journalism for which readers will pay. That’s the real secret sauce of The New York Times’ reader revenue success; the business operation that it has built atop that ever-improving content leverages the journalism.

For the most part, it’s been those leading independent papers, like the Morning News and Star Tribune, among others, that continue to make that kind of newsroom investment, taking a longer-term view. But what about many of the others, owned by private equity companies or single-class public companies, that have pursued short-term profit to the extent that they’ve eroded much of the community knowledge and newsroom resources that make them important? Is there enough left in the tank for them to leverage?

The best end-game we can foresee: a new, more sustainable model of digital-centric local news that merits new investment — and investors — seeing an opportunity they thought had passed.

Photo of a Seattle newsstand by John Henderson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2017, 6 a.m.
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